Rainer Maria Rilke
October 14, 2015 Ever since having been introduced to Richard Wilbur’s superb Love Calls Us to the Things of This World in a Sunday School class over a decade ago, I have been searching for a place like the one described in the poem. Who knew I would have to travel to Giudecca, a tiny island in the Mediterranean off the coast of Venice, to find it?
Love Calls Us to the Things of This World
March 28, 2015 I am in Jena for the national DAAD-conference and, in an entirely irresponsible move, skipped out on half of of the second day to visit Weimar, the city of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. There will always academic conferences, but there are only so many opportunities to visit Goethe’s actual house.
So, Goethe. He’s what Homer was for the Greeks and Shakespeare for the British–an irresistible and towering figure, the shaper of language and form and art. The last Genie, my professor always said. Everyone with even the most dilettante interest in German literature has had some sort of formative encounter with him, I think. For me it was Werther, which I checked out of the library at age 16 and with which I immediately fell in love, and then Faust, of course, torturously deciphered during my third semester of German. My seminar spent half a semester on the work, and I paced up and down outside of the classroom building for an hour before each session, German dictionary in hand, reading out loud in a bad American accent until it seemed like every line was permanently engrained in my consciousness. It’s inescapable, that work.
Today: Weimar was clean and beautiful, full of light and blooming trees, and also a bit unsettling. The entire place was marked by the same cult-like atmosphere I experienced two summers ago in Bayreuth–a whole city given over to a single great man (or rather two great men–Friedrich Schiller also commands a good deal of attention). Genie becomes marketing ploy, selling-point, the foundation of a booming tourist industry. The entrance to Goethe’s house was efficient and commercialized–streamlined white registration desk, 8.50E for a student ticket (!!), trade your passport for an audio guide in 20 languages, stand in line to check your bags in the back. It was somewhere between entering the Holy of Holies and going through the TSA at the airport.
The Museum, in a building next to the house, was especially shrine-like–the normal objects of a long and full life preserved with relic-worthy care, behind class in darkened rooms. Goethe’s traveling cloak, mitten (just one), microscope, embroidered suspenders, used-up pens, and on and on and on. It, and of course the house itself, was full of tourists even in the off-season, standing in line to take selfies in front of his desk and to get a glimpse of the room he died in. A bit unheimlich, that.
But somehow, though, it was all extremely fitting. Goethe was a god even during his lifetime, and the pilgrimages to Weimar began almost as soon as he moved in. The selfie-taking tourists are part of a tradition that goes back some two centuries, and includes many of the world’s greatest political, artistic, and intellectual luminaries. Everybody, it seems, wants to see Goethe.
Before I even got to Goethe’s home in the city, though, there was his Gartenhaus, the tiny cottage in the middle of the Stadtpark along the banks of the Ilm river. Goethe was 27 when he came into possession of the house–his first, and a gift of Duke Carl August. It was easy to see the appeal the surroundings had for Goethe at that time–this was the landscape of Werther, published just three years before, of Empfindsamkeit and Romantik and Sturm und Drang. The cottage itself was modest and evocative–inside, scrubbed wood floors, shelves of books, windows opening into green, and outside, all of the Nature of Goethe’s early poetry. According to the guide in the cottage, Goethe’s nightly skinny dipping in the Ilm, hardly more than a creek, inspired his rapturous poems to the moon.
An den Mond
Füllest wieder Busch und Tal
Still mit Nebelglanz,
Lösest endlich auch einmal
Meine Seele ganz;
Breitest über mein Gefild
Lindernd deinen Blick,
Wie des Freundes Auge mild
Über mein Geschick.
Jeden Nachklang fühlt mein Herz
Froh- und trüber Zeit,
Wandle zwischen Freud’ und Schmerz
In der Einsamkeit.
Fließe, fließe, lieber Fluß!
Nimmer werd’ ich froh;
So verrauschte Scherz und Kuß
Und die Treue so.
Ich besaß es doch einmal,
was so köstlich ist!
Daß man doch zu seiner Qual
Nimmer es vergißt!
Rausche, Fluß, das Tal entlang,
Ohne Rast und Ruh,
Rausche, flüstre meinem Sang
Wenn du in der Winternacht
Oder um die Frühlingspracht
Junger Knospen quillst.
Selig, wer sich vor der Welt
Ohne Haß verschließt,
Einen Freund am Busen hält
Und mit dem genießt,
Was, von Menschen nicht gewußt
Oder nicht bedacht,
Durch das Labyrinth der Brust
Wandelt in der Nacht.
Although he never sold the Gartenhaus, Goethe moved in 1782 to his home on the Frauenplan in downtown Weimar, where he would live until his death in 1832. He was involved in every step of the extensive renovations he set in place in the original building–drawing plans, importing statues, hanging his own drawings on the walls, picking the paint in keeping with the color theory he had developed, and even overseeing the construction. He had enough energy for several lifetimes, that Goethe.
Goethe’s close connection to antiquity was evident in every room–his whole house, actually, is a sort of monument to classical art. Goethe imported paintings and extensive plaster casts of the ancient statuary he had seen during his travels in Italy. They were to serve as inspiration, he wrote, and as objects of his own classical studies, a way to keep the Ancients accessible in a world before photography and internet encyclopedias.
Goethe’s study was one of the last rooms on the tour, and one of the only ones guests aren’t able to enter–it has been left more or less untouched since his death in 1832. Around the corner, his massive personal library, some 5,000 volumes in worn covers crammed onto high shelves. In the study, his famous writing lectern (he didn’t like to spend too much of each day sitting), quill pens, plants on the windowsills. I think the few moments I spent looking through the door will stay with me for quite a long time.
Finally, the room Goethe died in, on March 22, 1832–not one of the huge, majestic halls upstairs, but a small corner bedroom near his study. He was sitting in the chair when he died, attended only by his daughter-and-law Ottilie. His last words, according to his doctor, were “Mehr Licht!” (“More light!”).
And then, after all of that, I took the S-Bahn back to Jena, where 500 of the world’s brightest, nerdiest young academics, representing 59 countries and hundreds of fields of study, were having a disco party.
Herr: Es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren
und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.
Befiehl den letzten Früchten reif zu sein
gib Ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage
dräng sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein.
Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr
wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,
wird lesen, wachen, lange Briefe schreiben
und wird auf den Alleen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.
Lord: it is time. The summer was immense.
Lay your shadow on the sundials
and let loose the wind in the fields.
Bid the last fruits to be full;
give them another two more southerly days,
press them to ripeness, and chase
the last sweetness into the heavy wine.
Whoever has no house now will not build one anymore.
Whoever is alone now will remain so for a long time,
will stay up, read, write long letters,
and wander the avenues, up and down,
restlessly, while the leaves are blowing.
Rainer Maria Rilke
30. August, 2014 When I was in German 201, which seems like decades ago, during the first week of September our professor made us read the Rilke poem out loud again and again and again. It’s lovely, filigree-fine–impossible to translate into good English.
Suddenly it is autumn on the farm. The tomato plants are turning brown, the plums are falling from the trees, the leaves perhaps aren’t as green as they were two weeks ago. Summer’s over….strange.
And I’m moving on, too–I’ll be in Mainz by this evening, where I will have the chance to unpack my suitcase for the first time in two months. It will be good to get there.